Emerging Technologies

This is how we build a stronger, data-driven humanitarian sector

Returnees from north Sudan wait in line for World Food Program (WFP) staff to start distributing food in Aweil in the northern Bahr el Ghazal state in south Sudan December 29, 2010. People from Sudan's oil-producing south are widely expected to vote to split away to form Africa's newest nation in a referendum scheduled to take place on January 9, 2011 that was promised in a 2005 peace deal ending a civil war between north and south.  REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (SUDAN - Tags: POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXW2UI

The sharing of information plays a vital role in developing effective humanitarian response. Image: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Stephen O'Brien
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

In the many crisis zones I have visited this year – from South Sudan to Yemen – I have been acutely aware of the vital role that sharing information plays in shaping an effective collective response.

Working together to develop a shared situational awareness means we can ascertain the protection priorities for women fleeing northern Bahr El Ghazal and the drivers of malnutrition for children in a specific governorate of Yemen. Sharing data among partners propels a healthy humanitarian ecosystem and without it, coordination and effective action is impossible.

But collecting, processing, analysing and disseminating this data is hugely challenging in crisis settings, which are marked by insecurity, unpredictability, remote access, fragile public services, and, in many cases, poor telecommunications and limited connectivity. It is also difficult given the complex and decentralized nature of the humanitarian system in which thousands of aid entities, from local NGOs and civil society groups to UN agencies, government and private sector partners, are all trying to help people in some of the most chaotic situations on earth.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks over a map of the area during a tour of a relief distribution center in Tacloban December 18, 2013. Kerry announced that the U.S. government, through USAID, will provide an additional nearly $25 million humanitarian aid for the survivors of super typhoon Haiyan, which decimated towns and villages around Tacloban on November 8, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing 4 million.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder   (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS DISASTER SOCIETY) - RTX16N4D
US Secretary of State John Kerry on a tour of a relief distribution centre in the Philippines after the destruction of super typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

It is true that more data than ever is being collected and shared by affected people and humanitarian partners. But to use this data reliably to inform decisions, we need to adopt some important changes in how we go about our work. Now is the right time to embrace these changes: people want for transparency, and the need for robust data to underpin responsive and accountable leadership is all too clear.

First, we must build a common understanding of the value of shared data to fuel aid efficiency while insisting that all data is handled responsibly. We must replace ad hoc data sharing among individuals within organizations with institutional agreements that define how data will be shared and used regardless of the crisis. We also need to shift the way in which data is shared from a hub and spoke model, where data passes through a single point; to a network model, where data can be shared from anywhere to anyone through a trusted, connected infrastructure. Safeguarding privacy and ensuring sensitive data is handled appropriately, especially in conflict settings, are critical issues for our community as it becomes data-driven.

By taking this approach, we could develop situational analysis that quickly combines data from multiple sources, such as: market analysis from the World Food Programme; children’s nutrition levels from UNICEF; refugee locations and migrant movements from UNHCR and IOM; vaccine coverage from WHO; and direct feedback from affected people through call centres or community surveys. We must bring all of this data together, aligned around place and time, to create a complete picture of a crisis and to know where to intervene.

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Secondly, we need to create new business models to assist people in need. I welcome the newly appointed secretary-general’s emphasis on building a more agile UN and streamlining bureaucracy. The humanitarian community has a roadmap for change in the Agenda for Humanity, a five-point plan that includes reinforcing local systems and working across mandates and sectors. It calls for data and joint analysis to become the bedrock of our action and states that data and analysis are the starting point for moving from a supply-driven approach to one motivated by addressing the risks of the most vulnerable.

Finally, we need to forge new partnerships with the private sector to increase our data skills and technical capabilities. We want to learn from our partners in the private sector how they are using data to drive the business transformations we see in the tech and healthcare industries. If we can apply these lessons in the humanitarian sector, we will improve and save more lives than ever. This is social impact on a global scale. In March, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) will convene a conference, hosted by Google at its campus in Mountain View, to explore the use of technology to put people at the centre of humanitarian response.

This year OCHA will open a Centre for Humanitarian Data in the Netherlands that will focus on the issues listed above. I believe the centre will help expedite the changes required for the humanitarian system to become data savvy, ultimately leading to more effective and efficient work. The vision is to create a future where all people involved in a humanitarian situation have access to the data they need, when and how they need it, to make responsible and informed decisions. Will you join us in making this vision a reality?

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